When the Niagara Junior Purple Eagles wanted to expand their program to include Tier I girls’ teams, they had conversations with Scott Welch, who had already coached many successful Buffalo Bisons teams.
Then two years ago, Welch left the Bisons and went to Niagara to coach the Junior Purple Eagles.
A funny thing happened when the girls first started putting on the Purple Eagles uniforms, which were identical to the ones worn by the Niagara University women’s team.
They became the Hartford Whalers of girls’ hockey — everybody’s second favorite team.
Four years ago, despite having a consistently competitive team, Niagara University disbanded its women’s program, citing cost issues.
Welch knew about this firsthand, as the second of his four daughters, Kelsey, was playing for Niagara at the time. She was forced to make the difficult decision of transferring for her senior year in order to continue playing hockey. She wound up on Mercyhurst University, which ended up making the Frozen Four that year.
So, when other youth and college coaches and scouts, many of whom played for Niagara, saw ponytails draping the back of Purple Eagles uniforms once again, they couldn’t help but feel nostalgic.
“I cannot tell you how many coaches came up to me and told me, ‘We’re not supposed to be rooting for anyone, but it’s hard not to root for you guys,’” Welch said. “In the back of many of their minds, Niagara is a soft spot.”
The Junior Purple Eagles went to the Toyota-USA Hockey National Championships last year, and the 19U squad will be going once again after winning the New York state tournament. This year’s national tournament begins March 31 in Blaine, Minnesota.
This year’s team is well balanced as it went 30-9-5, including a victory over the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, the Minnesota Whitecaps Elite Black, while also recording wins over the Colorado Select and Honeybaked en route to the NAHA Labor Day Tournament championship.
“We’re really proud to do it again this year,” Welch said. “With 10 seniors, we’ve got experience. We’ve got a good core of kids who have been to nationals.
“Often, when a team makes it to nationals, they keep looking for the schedule to come out to see who made it and who they will play. Our kids don’t care who we’re playing. They just want to go out and do well. They are excited for the opportunity to play well.”
Despite the success his former Bisons’ teams and current Niagara teams have had, Welch’s main focus is to develop the talent of his players so they have the opportunity to play in college if they wish.
He’s particularly proud that all 10 of his seniors are already spoken for. This includes his last daughter, Abby, who has committed to Penn State.
That will make it a clean sweep of Division I schools for the Welch clan — the aforementioned Kelsey; Haley (Union College); Maddi who just completed her first season as a goaltender for Syracuse University; and now Abby.
Welch will continue coaching next year even though the last of his daughters will be off to college. He still enjoys coaching all of his “adopted kids.” And he’s certainly enjoying reviving the Purple Eagles moniker to girls’ hockey.
“It’s been fun,” Welch said. “The kids helped put Niagara hockey back on the map.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.